Defining Educational Leadership in the U.S. School System


Understanding Educational Leadership in U.S. Schools


Educational leadership in schools can be viewed through two distinctly different lenses:

(1)    a focus on the positions of responsibility within each individual school

(2)    the larger view of the school system at the state and district levels

Each of these viewpoints allows for an important perspective on what leadership means within the United States school system, and how improvements might be made at the various points of impact within our schools.


School-Centric Hierarchy

From the principal down to the support staff, there is a formal hierarchy of leadership that has been in place in schools for many generations. The rank of principal, teacher, and counselor each imply a certain degree of knowledge and power.

Used for the benefit of all personnel and students, the principal’s clout and influence can be a positive contributor to the overall culture and performance of their school. The converse is also true if the principal uses their rank to suppress the opinions and value of their teachers and support staff. Students take an example from leadership behavior, in an early lesson about what it means to be in charge.

Teachers and counselors have their own way of pulling rank. Teachers give the grades which can make or break their school’s performance measures on a state level, while also impacting their students’ future academic aspirations. Counselors, on the other hand, have the inside edge on understanding what is happening with individual students and what their dreams for the future might be.

At the bottom of the heap are the people who help to facilitate the everyday operation of the school. The secretaries, teacher’s aides, cafeteria workers, and custodians – while champions of children and critical to the inner workings of the school – are often targets of disrespect from other adults. Again, students catch on quickly and can see where being at the end of the chain of command is not a desirable position.


State & District-Level Leadership

There is a clear hierarchy outside of the school walls, as well. The state department of education provides guidance and funding to the districts, which in turn have the challenge and opportunity to shape the schools under their domain.

The state has the overarching responsibility for creating an educational environment that supports their students’ need for knowledge, growth and achievement. If a district is failing its students, the state needs to gauge whether it may be failing that district in one way or another. It is up to the state to ensure that each district has adequate funding, strong leadership, and a professionally well-developed team of principals and teachers serving their schools.

It is up to the district to create strategic plans to improve and empower educational leadership in alignment with a greater vision for measurable success at all of its schools. For a district to be successful all of the major players must be on board with the state’s framework for best practices and estimations of what is needed in their local schools.  This includes the superintendent of schools, the school board and community leaders, along with the parents, principals and teachers in the district.

The principal and teacher leaders are the front line of fulfilling the school’s promise to provide the best available education to their students. Preparing children for the next grade or next step in their future requires a commitment to creating needs-based solutions to effective learning. The school, as part of a larger entity, also has an obligation to go to the district if help is needed to meet established goals. Learn more about our online Master of Education program.



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